In late October, 2015 a multi-state meeting was held in Vienna which named itself the International Syria Support Group. The group was comprised of representatives of seventeen nations and included officials of the European Union, United Nations and the Arab League. It was led in substance by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
The purpose of the meeting was to build a diplomatic “framework” to bring about an end to the civil war in Syria which has been raging since 2011 and which has cost the lives of an estimated 250,000 Syrian citizens and caused the immigration of perhaps four million others who have fled to neighboring countries and beyond.
The group of diplomats faced a situation of enormous complexity not the least of which was the fact that its membership included several nations which have contributed to, and are playing a role in the conflict itself. Simply put, the “Group” was faced with the public task of finding common ground while many of the participants were, and continue to be, primarily motivated by the pursuit of national interests, as defined by their respective political leaders.
While a cessation of the conflict is certainly in the interests of the majority of the international community, the nature of the post-conflict conditions in Syria offer little consensus despite the officially stated goals that resulted from the meetings. This lack of genuine consensus puts the agreement at risk of being nothing more than an unenforceable and unrealistic political statement.
The facts on the ground explain the complications and risks involved.
International challenges of this sort require leadership from those with the most capabilities to influence the outcomes i.e. financial, military, international status. That would strongly imply that an active U.S. role is vital. However, President Obama effectively ceded U.S leadership to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin when he waffled on his 2012 “red line” ultimatum to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with regard to Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own civilian population. After Obama’s threat, Assad launched rockets containing sarin nerve gas against the municipality of Ghouta in August of 2013 which resulted in an estimated 1700 civilian death. Obama failed to respond with the air strikes which he had threatened earlier. This created a credibility problem and leadership vacuum which emboldened Russia’s President Putin to step in with his own plan to remove Assad’s chemical weapons, a negotiated process primarily between Putin and Assad in which Assad agreed to turn over all his chemical weapons.
Obama’s perceived weakness and indecision would later embolden Putin him to pursue his military intervention in Syria on behalf of the Assad government. This in turn has greatly complicated both the military situation on the ground and the proposed settlement issues. In the meantime, Assad has simply replaced his use of rocket launched sarin nerve gas with helicopter borne barrel bombs containing chlorine, a substance left out of the Putin/Assad settlement but a violation of the international Chemical Weapons Convention. In spite of his diminished status Obama sent Secretary Kerry to orchestrate the International Syrian Support Group’s agenda.
The “Final Declaration” issued by the “Group” after only its second meeting on November 14th stated that “Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity and secular character are fundamental.” This agenda was affirmed at a third meeting in New York City on December 18th which led to a UN Security Council Resolution in its support.
In pursuit of these declared standards for a post-Assad government, several specific goals were announced:
1. UN led negotiations between the current Syrian government and the “opposition” should be commenced by January 1, 2016 the purpose being to bring about “a credible, inclusive, non-sectarian government “and a new constitution and democratic elections.
2. Not all anti-Assad insurgent groups fighting in Syria would be included in the negotiations with the Syrian government or any “cease fire” agreement. The Al Nusra militia which is the al Qaeda terrorist organization in Syria, and the Islamic State terrorists are to be excluded. Jordan is tasked with the job to lead yet to be identified sub-groups to determine which of the many insurgent groups are “terrorist groups” and which are not. This difficult task was to be accomplished by January 1, 2016, which has now come and gone.
3. By May 14, 2016, a cease fire between the Syrian government and accepted opposition groups is supposed come into force, which will allow the process for drafting a new constitution to begin.
4. By May 14, 2017, United Nations administered elections will be held under the new constitution, bringing in a new government with the hope of bringing a permanent end to the conflict.
These goals were the simple part of the process and arrived at after only two meetings. Which nation would publicly state opposition to such things as a “cease fire” in a bloody civil war, or a regime change based on a democratic constitution and “free elections”? This of course is the Western liberal democratic model, satisfying to European and American minds and United Nations bureaucrats, and presumably to their domestic political constituencies. But the chasm between such goals and the reality of the actual context of the conflict is enormous.
Consider once again the Final Declaration of the Support Group which stated : “Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity and secular character are fundamental.”
Syria’s lack of“ unity” and “territorial integrity” is currently exposed by the existence of the Kurdish controlled territory in the northwest border region with Turkey. The Kurds inhabit contiguous regions in Turkey, Iran and Iraq and have long demanded, and fought for an independent Kurdistan in those regions. They have “autonomous” status in adjoining Iraq and as the most organized and effective fighting force currently in Syria, they are not likely to negotiate away their status or goals as part of a broader settlement.
Then of course, there is the Islamic State which controls significant territory in Syria and has established its “capital” in the Syrian city of Raqqa. President Obama has stated that the struggle against the Islamic State will take years. His current “strategy” of small numbers of “Special Operations advisers” and numerous tactical air strikes which are burdened by highly restrictive rules of engagement, has shown little progress to make even this long range prediction believable but time table of the International Syria Support Group extends only until 2017.
Syria’s “independence” is currently not a reality. Besides the presence of the Islamic State, Russia, Iran and Lebanese Shi’ite militia Hezbollah all have a significant presence in pursuit of their own interests. Russian and Iran are both members of the International Syria Support Group and can be expected to wield much influence in the outcome of any negotiations for Syria’s future.
Can a future Syrian government reasonably be expected to have a “secular” “democratic” character?
This Western concept would have to be enshrined in the new constitution by the parties to the negotiations, under the influence of the Support Group. Outside of the Kurdish forces and their allies in the eastern and northeaster regions of Syria there are few significant insurgent groups which could be characterized as “secular”, “moderate” or inclined towards the democratic model in a post-Assad Syria but there are scores of militant Islamist groups.
The Islamic Front which is considered the most formidable opposition force is a loose coalition of seven Islamist groups. The most powerful of these being Ahrār ash-Shām which is considered by some to be a terrorist group. Together these seven groups are estimated to have as many as 70,000 fighters.
The goal of the Islamic Front and its component brigades is to establish a Salafist style fundamentalist Islamic state in Syria, governed by Sharia law. They differ from the formally declared Islamic State (ISIS) only by their lack of international ambitions. The charter of the Islamic Front specifically rejects the concepts of representative democracy and secularism.
But the composition of the “Support Group” itself poses an obvious and contradictory expectation of support for a “secular” and “democratic” constitution. Members include Egypt, Jordan, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates, none of which are constitutional democracies and unlikely to want to see a democratic movement in the region. Saudi Arabia, and Iran are Islamist theocracies as well , and Saudi Arabia is a supporter of the fundamentalist Islamic Front and is pushing for it to be included in the negotiations for a post-Assad regime.
The Support Group also includes representatives from the Arab League, a twenty-two nation regional organization which contains an even wider array of non-democratic states with Islamist parties, movements or sectarian governments.
The process is also at risk by the recent escalation of long-term hostilities between Group members Saudi Arabia and Iran over the Saudi execution of a Shi’ite radical mullah who was supported by Iran. While direct military confrontations between the two Islamist governments are unlikely, a continuation and perhaps expansion of proxy wars as is currently underway in Yemen, can be expected to be a sub-plot to the resolution of the Syrian conflict.
Thus significant forces within and outside of Syria are not compatible with the idealistic Western orientation of the official goals of the International Syria Support Group and the likelihood of such an outcome is remote.
Other issues which haven’t been addressed by the Support Group loom above the process.
The multiple opposition forces do not speak with one voice. They are organized around different, often competing regional, religious and individual ambitions of their leaders. The Support Group requires negotiations between selected insurgent group leaders and the Syrian government but the Syrian government “is” Assad, who the U.S. and others want to be removed as a pre-condition to negotiation, while the Russians want Assad to remain during negotiations and transition. The Iranians want Assad to remain permanently as he represents a Shi’ite client state.
Either way, who will be the government negotiators? Assad will likely not negotiate his own downfall. He has killed a quarter of a million of his own citizens. He will almost certainly be indicted by the International Criminal Court should he resign. His military leaders are complicit in the atrocities and would likely face similar indictments.
The prospects for a smooth, negotiated transition to any type of government are remote because there is a strong probability that once Assad is removed, his military will collapse as its senior Alawite officers and rank and file flee to avoid retribution by the Sunni rebels. The resulting power vacuum will result in renewed conflict as the competing rebel factions seek power.
If Assad is removed and his government and military collapse, who will fight the Islamic State?
Negotiations are to include a ceasefire but not with the Islamic State, Al Qaeda or other yet to be named “terrorist groups”. Is a partial ceasefire based on some participants and some geographical areas but not others a “cease fire” at all?
Any ensuing and prolonged chaos will offer new opportunities for the Islamic State to expand its geographical control. The only possible positive scenario of a post-Assad era is for the negotiated removal of Assad to include a consolidation of rebel forces into an anti-Islamic State force to achieve the stated goal of “territorial integrity”. Concessions would have to be made to the Kurds. These could be the anti-Islamic State ground troops which no one else in the region or in the West wants to deploy. But they would need regional and Western support and the Syrian conflict would continue.
In essence, the framework of the International Syria Support Group is a set of goals without a strategy or even a national or regional consensus among the operative groups and nations most involved.